After a century, a black naval Civil War veteran gets a tombstone in Tacoma, Washington.


(Tribune News Service) – Over the past century, a row of military graves in Tacoma’s Oakwood Hill Cemetery have been visibly dented. Only a patch of grass marked the final resting place of David Franklin, Tacoma’s only black Naval Civil War veteran.

That changes on Saturday when a years-long effort led by a Civil War historian finally brings Franklin the forgotten white marble headstone from 1920.

Tumwater-based historian Loran Bures’ quest to obtain his headstone from Franklin began in 2017 while researching Civil War veterans in Pierce County. He found records listing Franklin and his burial at Oakwood Hill, but when he visited the cemetery he could not find his grave.

Using cemetery records, Bures discovered that the gap in the neat row of military graves was Franklin’s unmarked grave. It was then that he set out to find out who Franklin was and right a wrong.

“Like any United States veteran, they should receive their funeral honors,” Bures said. “That’s what we were trying to rectify after 102 years.”

Franklin and the Battle of Wilson’s Wharf

Little is known of Franklin’s early life except that he was born free in New York City in 1840. He enlisted in the Union Navy on November 13, 1863, when he was 23 years old.

The young sailor was assigned to the Union Navy’s USS Dawn, a gunboat, as a steward and officers’ cook.

According to Cynthia Wilson, a Seattle-based historian who researches Black Civil War veterans, the 154-foot-long steamer Dawn averaged 65 crew members and three officers. About 17 percent of the crew were black.

The ship was part of the North Atlantic Blockading Squadron, and while Franklin served there, he spent most of his time on the James River in Virginia.

During Dawn, Franklin is said to have taken part in one of the most important battles in Black Civil War history, according to historians – the Battle of Wilson’s Wharf.

On May 24, 1864, approximately 2,500 Confederate soldiers attacked the Union supply depot at Wilson’s Wharf, Virginia. They are repulsed by two black regiments totaling 1,100 men, with the help of the guns of the USS Dawn.

The battle showed that a small force of black soldiers and sailors could defeat a larger white force.

“It was a loss for the Confederacy with minimal casualties for African American soldiers (40) but the Confederacy lost 200 men,” Franklin said.

“It was a turning point in black history,” Bures said.

Coming to Tacoma

Franklin was released on March 31, 1865, Wilson learned from documents provided by the National Archives. A few days later, Confederate General Robert E. Lee surrendered to Union General Ulysses S. Grant in Appomattox, Virginia.

Where Franklin went after the war has been lost to history. But he first appeared in Tacoma as a member of a veterans’ group, the Grand Army of the Republic (GAR), in 1888. An 1899 Tacoma city directory listed him as a broiler at the Donnelly Cafe. The cafe was attached to the Donnelly Hotel.

Tacoma was a boom town in the late 1800s and early 1900s. Franklin is said to have seen Washington become a state in 1889 and lived through the Spanish flu pandemic of 1918.

In 1906, records show that Franklin enlisted in the hospital corps of the 2nd Infantry Regiment of the Washington National Guard. He was listed as a cook.

“We don’t know anything else about it except that,” Bures said. “It’s unbelievable that at 65 he’s enlisting in the National Guard.”

According to census records, Franklin died on March 16, 1920, at the age of 79 at his home on South 4th Street.

Franklin’s death certificate indicates he was a widower, but Bures could not find any documentation confirming that Franklin had a wife or children. He is still looking for family members. A flag flying above the United States Capitol building on Sept. 2 honoring Franklin will be presented to a family member if one is found.

Finding Franklin

Franklin’s discovery by Bures came when he attempted to locate the graves and final resting places of all Union Civil War veterans in Pierce County.

“It’s important for history and genealogy,” Bures said.

He was helped by a 1939 investigation by the Works Progress Administration (WPA), a Depression-era New Deal agency aimed at employing people for government projects. WPA workers created biographical records for all Pierce County veterans.

The original maps are kept in the northwest room of the Tacoma Public Library. About 75% of the library’s 2,000 cards are from Civil War veterans, Bures said.

During Bures’ research, Franklin’s map stood out.

“What’s interesting is what’s not there,” Bures said. He did not show how or where he served.

It wasn’t until Bures found Franklin’s death certificate that he learned the veteran was black. Further research into a National Park Service database revealed that Franklin had served on the Dawn.

Earlier this year, Bures went in search of Franklin’s grave in Oakwood Hill.

“We went to the cemetery and found it was unmarked,” Bures said.

right a wrong

The GAR was the country’s first veterans’ organization. It was dissolved after the death of its last member in the 1950s. Bures belongs to the Sons of Veterans of the Civil War Union, successor to the GAR.

Bures worked with Oakwood Hills owner Corey Gaffney to confirm that Franklin was buried in the cemetery and his headstone was missing.

The Sons of Union Veterans of the Civil War are considered by the Veterans Administration to be Franklin’s next of kin and thus Bures was able to apply for the headstone. The VA provided the marker free of charge, mined from the same Vermont quarry used a century ago.

Gaffney donates his graveyard’s resources to ensure Franklin gets the respect he deserves.

“If you’re in the funeral business, you’re almost by default a historian,” Gaffney said, “it’s just me doing my very small part to make sure Mr. Franklin gets what he got. “

Reparation is personal for Bures. His great-great-grandfather, another Civil War veteran, is buried just steps from Franklin’s grave. The two men were members of the Custer Post of the GAR and may have known each other.

Earlier this week, Franklin’s headstone lay on its back in a cemetery, awaiting installation.

In the military section where it will be housed, years of neglect have turned the headstones dark gray. Rosettes of orange lichen grow in spots on the marble.

Gaffney, who purchased the cemetery in 2021 with his wife, said he had a VA-approved cleaning solution that would restore the darkened stones to their original white color.

Until then, Franklin’s headstone will be the shiniest spot in Oakwood Hill Cemetery.

(c)2022 The News Tribune (Tacoma, Washington)

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A years-long effort by a Civil War historian will finally bring Civil War Navy veteran David Franklin the white marble headstone that was forgotten in 1920. (Screen grab from The News Tribune video )


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